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Ranch in Berclair offers nature tourism to city slickers

By KBell
Nov. 3, 2010 at 6:03 a.m.

John Barnhart has a vision for his ranch that he would like to see evolve into a new venture of nature tourism and give people a taste of living in the country. "Kids were growing up in the city not knowing where milk came from," he said.

FOR MORE INFORMATIONGo to www.barnhartranchretreat.com or call the ranch at 361-375-2824

The donkey patties sprinkled around a long, winding driveway are hardly a detriment to the Barnhart Q5 Ranch and Retreat.

They're a main attraction.

City slickers from Russia to Scotland, and Boston to California have found their way to the 706-acre retreat, hidden a few miles north of Berclair, to experience life on a ranch - donkey dung and all.

John Barnhart, owner and "tour guide" at the ranch, calls his venture "nature tourism."

"Kids were growing up in the city not knowing where milk came from," he said.

Barnhart, almost 85, said he'd been looking for innovative ways to capitalize on his land since he acquired it in 1993.

When his daughter, Claire Barnhart Korth, came home from a nature tourism conference hosted by Texas A&M, the slowly-evolving idea of opening up their land to visitors and profit seemed to come to fruition.

"Then and there, we knew it was perfect for us. You can make money and have fun," Claire said, as if still amazed by the concept.

Today, the ranch boasts more than 18 miles of hike and bike trails, eight ponds, two creeks, canoes, cattle, a stargazing platform, and all sorts of wildlife and bird viewing areas.

"We both looked at it and said, 'This is gorgeous, this is special, but it's not worth anything if you can't share it with people,'" Claire said.

Besides the Barnhart homestead, there is also a one-bedroom, one-bathroom Hummingbird House and a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house for guests.

The latter is the historic Maetze-von Dohlen home, built in 1877, that used to sit in a now-vacant lot across from the Dairy Queen in Goliad.

In 2005, the city wanted the then two-room home gone.

"We couldn't believe they would take an historic home in an historic town and tear it down for commercial purposes," she said.

After protests and a less-than-successful auction, the Barnharts ended up purchasing the home for $250 and moving it - a process that took 11½ hours - out to the ranch.

They built it, sort of, and in May 2006, the people came.

Thanks mostly to online rental sites and word of mouth, the Barnharts now have a steady flow of guests, each looking for a different kind of getaway.

"There's a lot to do here, but most people just want to sit on the front porch and relax," said Wilfred Korth, Claire's husband. "We let each guest experience the ranch how they want."

Korth told the story of one couple from the city, who said they had to play a CD at night in order to get to sleep on the ranch. They said it was too quiet.

"Some people's reactions can initially be of fear," Barnhart said. "They can be afraid of darkness, of silence. But then they turn on to the marvel of it."

Barnhart said he thinks people are mostly impressed by the stars.

"They sit on the front porch, rocking, amazed by the dark sky. They don't get to see it with light pollution," he said.

And soon, guests will have another porch from which to rock and gaze.

Construction on a third guest house is expected to be completed by the middle of this month.

"We're not static," Korth said. "This will always be evolving, but the goal will always be geared toward quality time on the ranch."

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